Town meeting the challenge

Mar 24, 2020 by

Published in the March 24, 2020 edition.

By MARK SARDELLA

WAKEFIELD – It was a historic meeting in ways that no one really wanted but which were made necessary in light of the social distancing required due to the COVID-19 virus.

Nevertheless, last night’s Town Council meeting, during which most members participated remotely via telephone hookup, went very smoothly, thanks in large part to WCAT’s Chief Engineer Ian McDermott who handled the whole studio operation single-handedly.

Seated at opposite ends of a table in the WCAT studio were Town Council Chairman Edward Dombroski and Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio. Dialing in remotely were Town Council Vice Chair Ann Santos along with Councilors Julie Smith-Galvin, Mehreen Butt and Jonathan Chines. Councilors Paul DiNocco and Peter May were not able to participate.

The first segment of last night’s meeting was spent discussing the steps that the town has taken in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Maio noted that starting in late February and early March, meetings were held with all town department heads. Those meetings were chaired by Health Director Ruth Clay and Emergency Management Director Thomas Walsh.

On March 12, the library, the Senior Center and the Americal Civic Center were all closed, Maio said, due in large part to the vulnerable populations that those organizations serve. He stressed that the Senior Center van is still available to take people to essential appointments.

Next, the town announced that it was cancelling all scheduled events on town property, including the annual Easter Egg Hunt held on the Common, the Sweetser Lecture Series and Little League tryouts.

Schools closed as of March 13, Maio noted, and in an emergency meeting on Monday, March 16, the Town Council declared a state of emergency in the town. That action allows the town to take other measures as may be needed and positions the town for state and federal assistance. Following that meeting on March 16, Town Hall was closed to the public, Maio said.

On Wednesday, March 18, the Board of Health ordered all personal service businesses (hair salons, nail salons, etc.) closed. The same day, the town closed all parks and playgrounds because, Maio said, people were not practicing social distancing.

Maio said that outdoor activities such as walking are encouraged, just not in groups. He said that signs to that effect have been put up around the Lake. He added that the Nahant Street Yard Waste Facility has added weekday hours to facilitate people getting outside and doing yard work while they are stuck at home.

Building, wiring and plumbing inspectors are not entering buildings except in emergencies, Maio noted, and when possible, inspections are being done remotely via video.

Maio observed that National Grid will be cleaning up and closing its work sites around town this week and he expected other construction jobs to follow suit.

The town is working with the Legislature and expects some kind of provision to be passed allowing municipal elections and Town Meetings to be rescheduled.

Maio said that remote meetings, such as the Town Council meeting last night, will be the rule for the time being.

Maio said that he was heartened by the number of citizens who have come forward with offers of help, from making masks to creating signs and banners. He said that checks to the town’s Emergency Fund, which helps those in need, have been coming in.

Maio thanked the town’s first responders, town employees and local citizens. He said that town government will continue and be ready to hit the ground running when the crisis is over.

Dombroski acknowledged Maio’s “incredible leadership during this time” and stressed that the most important thing that people can do now is social distancing.

In response to a question from Councilor Julie Smith-Galvin, Maio said that citizens who believe they may be sick should call their doctor, but that general help and advice is also available by calling the Wakefield Health Department or the Governor’s Hotline. Maio clarified that when someone tests positive, the Health Department is notified. Dombroski added that first responders will be notified of confirmed cases.

Asked about public board meetings, Maio said that the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Conservation Commission, whose meetings typically include public hearings, have cancelled meetings until mid-April.

Councilor Ann Santos said that she was dismayed to see the number of people walking the Lake in tight clusters.

“That’s not social distancing,” she said. She urged stronger messaging from the town on signs around the Lake.

Dombroski suggested that people avoid the crowds by creating their own walking or running routes in their neighborhoods.

Councilor Jonathan Chines asked about the impact on town employees.

Maio said that all town employees who can work from home are doing so. Essential employees whose jobs do not permit working from home are working staggered shifts to minimize contact, Maio said.

Dombroski asked School Superintendent Douglas Lyons, who had dialed into the meeting, to talk about what the schools have been doing.

Lyons said that the schools have been practicing an expanded and adapted “Learn Anywhere” distance learning program since the schools closed on March 13 and will continue doing so until at least the April 6 date that the state has ordered all schools to remain closed.

He said that the nurses and counselors are addressing students’ social and emotional needs during this time. School food service employees are still working and are feeding those that need lunch.

Finally, Lyons said that as of now, he does not expect that this will mean that schools will have to remain in session later than the scheduled June 17 end of the school year.

Dombroski stressed that the Food Pantry is still open and the Boys & Girls Club is doing what it can remotely. He suggested that the Food Pantry, the Boys & Girls Club and the Town’s Emergency Fund all present opportunities for donors who want to help out.

He encouraged citizens to support local restaurants with takeout and delivery orders.

Dombroski also stressed the importance of getting information from reliable sources, such as the town’s web site.

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